Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Outer Hebrides - Great Northern ?

Great Northern ? by Arthur Ransome is the last fully completed book in the 'Swallows and Amazons' series. The adventure takes place on the coast of an island in the Outer Hebrides. The location is left vague as a part of the plot for Ransome is claiming that he wants to preserve the anonimity of the breeding place of the Great Northern Divers of the storyline. It is a clever variation on the old idea of having your cake and eating it. The obfuscation of the setting is a necessary part of the creation of the book. Ransome knew the real Isle of Lewis well and must have used the settings there.

The well-known children of this twelvth story struggle so hard to contend with two opposing dilemmas - the confirming of the fact that these rare birds do break all the rules of known British ornithology is placed against a desperate desire to preserve the secret and, within the story, most alarmingly, preserve the lives of the birds themselves. All of the usual children in the series are assembled again for this additional adventure. The last time they were all together in one joint enterprise was in the Carnegie Medal winning 'Pigeon Post'.

Ransome's achievement is to make all of the children seen the same and yet, at the same time, become slightly older. Titty, so often the key character in many of the earlier adventures, is here relegated into a minor secondary role. John and Nancy are still their reliable selves. Even Dorothea's support is secondary to Dick's dmination of the centre stage.

Both Dick and Roger develop in ways that we might not expect. Roger's liking for himself faces a short-term reverse in his self-esteem. However,it is basically Dick's story, for he is the one who has to re-evaluate his feelings about what life may bring him as he grows up and becomes an independent adult.

The life and opportunities of the birdman seems a desirable objective - something upon which the naturalist can set his heart. We remember that inn 'Pigeon Post' Dick makes an obvious mistake of fact when he allows the painfully mined ore to dissolve in 'aqua regia' and thinks it could still be gold. The threat posed by the fire and the drama of the last section of the book is not a consequence of his error.

In 'Great Northern' he learns that his pursuit of knowledge and the truth lays him open to a greater mistake of judgement when he thinks he can reveal information to a person, Mr. Jemmerling, whom he should never trust. He learns that mistakes, no matter how innocent, can bring unexpectedly painful consequences. The drama of the last part of the final novel is provided by Jemmerlings' greed for reputation, Dick's desperate attempt to preserve what he has so endangered and the fortunate but largely chancy intervention of the Gaelic population.

We are left with the feeling that Dick still has lessons to learn about the world of scientific study. It is not simply a matter of taking accurate measurements,obtaining clear photographic proof and reporting what has happened to the world. Ransome's own achievement is attempting to report the perils of making of a major discovery and the effect that it can have even on the best of people. You can believe that Nancy may glory in the fact that it is the naturalist of the Sea Bear who confounds received opinion about the birds who nest in the United Kingdom. You are more likely to believe that Dick will have learned a greater lesson.

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